Thursday, June 24, 2004

Michael Gerson has been a busy man lately.

The 40-year-old chief speechwriter for President Bush has worked nearly nonstop for most of the month to supply his boss with nearly two dozen speeches — some planned, others unforeseen.

“This was kind of a bruising period because of the confluence of all these ceremonial events. The World War II Memorial and Memorial Day and the Air Force Academy [commencement address] and D-Day and the Reagan eulogy. It was just a tough period,” Mr. Gerson said.

And it’s about to get tougher. Mr. Gerson and his team are drafting a speech for Mr. Bush on the transfer of sovereignty from the U.S.-led coalition to an Iraqi government appointed by the United Nations on Wednesday.

“I’m not sure if it’s June 30, but we are going to speak around the date,” said Mr. Gerson, lending credence to the inside-the-Beltway rumor that the president, who will end a trip to Ireland and Turkey on June 29, might pop down to Baghdad for a small ceremonial turnover.

The Bush speechwriters have been working round-the-clock since the end of May, when they provided the president with soaring rhetoric for the dedication of the National World War II Memorial on the Mall. In the next week, Mr. Bush made a lengthy statement on the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq, delivered the Air Force commencement address in Colorado and then flew to Europe on a four-day trip, which included the June 6 D-Day speech and a hastily crafted statement on the death of former President Ronald Reagan given at midnight.

Since then, things have not eased up. There were a half-dozen statements with foreign leaders at the Group of Eight summit in Georgia, the Reagan eulogy, an address to the Southern Baptist Convention, two pep talks to military personnel in Florida and Washington state, and several issue-oriented speeches nationwide.

For each, the Bush team — Mr. Gerson, six speechwriters, two researchers and two full-time fact-checkers — crafted unique speeches to fit the moment. But Mr. Gerson, a former U.S. News & World Report writer who has worked for Mr. Bush since 1999, has written so many speeches for the president that he now writes fairly easily in Mr. Bush’s voice.

“I have a pretty good feel after five years. I’ve gotten closer and closer over the years,” he said.

The job of the speechwriter is to break down a complex subject into its smaller components.

“If I were to describe the type of rhetoric he likes, I would say it’s a mix of simplicity and elevation. He really likes a nice turn of phrase, and he understands emotional language, but he wants a level of directness and simplicity. … He values emotional seriousness.”

Speechwriters sometimes know what’s coming — the World War II memorial and D-Day, for example — but often don’t, such as the Reagan eulogy. Either way, they must produce. There is no time for luxuries such as writer’s block.

The team’s output in the past month illustrates the demands of the job. The speech for the 60th anniversary of D-Day, which the president delivered from the cliffs of Normandy overlooking Omaha Beach, was lofty rhetoric that praised the soldiers of “the greatest generation,” many of them making their last trip to the French shores.

Work on the D-Day speech began two to three weeks before the event, and Mr. Gerson even sent a researcher with a White House advance team to the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, France, to soak in the setting.

The researcher read great works such as “The Longest Day” and prepared a “very thorough briefing with a lot of background material for the writers” — in this case, Mr. Gerson and his senior staff, deputy John McConnell and senior speechwriter Matt Scully.

“We had a pretty simple purpose: We wanted the event to be about the veterans and the focus not to have anything having to do with broader politics, anything having to do with the president and his own drama. We really wanted it to be something that the veterans themselves would appreciate,” Mr. Gerson said.

Although one veteran said the speech was Mr. Bush’s best because “it wasn’t political,” Irene Sauters, 86, of Carlisle, Pa., who served in the 191st General Hospital in Paris during World War II, thought it was a flop.

“He ought to fire his speechwriter,” she said. “It was a horrible speech. It didn’t soar, it just fell flat.”

Mr. Gerson said simply: “There’s no way to please everyone, and our main job is to please the president.”

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